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Published: August 8th 2007
Georgetown - Khota Bharu - Pulau Perhentian Besar - Jerantut - Kuala Tahan (Taman Negara) Georgetown
Caught between a squat and what looked like an attempt to stick his head up his own arse, the tramp staggered backwards along the pavement towards us, his movements comically restricted by the trousers and pants around his ankles. Welcome to Georgetown.
It wasn’t high up on our list of “to-do’s”, in fact, our only real reasons for being here were to a) see if the food is as good as that in our favourite Edinburgh restaurant (the “Old Penang” on London Road) and b) to avoid the journey down the South East coast of Thailand which is currently ill advised due to terrorist attacks.
I won’t pretend to know anything about the politics behind the violence (why it is, who is involved) but when we did finally get to Khota Bharu we met a Dutch girl who, with her two companions, had asked the tourist office if it was safe to take a train through that region of Thailand. The response from the extremely casual tourist officer was: “Absolutely. Easy-peasy lemon-squeezy. You should definitely do it…. In the past few months
View from Komtar Tower, Georgetown, Penang
Georgetown stretches along the waterfront, a muddle of strong cultural identities and dangerous pavements. Come here for the food.
the violence has been minimal - only 24 people killed.” At this point the Dutch girl had made up her mind to take the longer route via Penang. One of her friends however, who was on a tighter budget decided to take a risk. She bought her ticket from the officer who then said: “Of course, there was a bomb next to the rail tracks yesterday that killed two people.” The girl holding the tickets face fell. Apparently the officer saw the look on her face and reassuringly said “don’t worry; you’ll be fine, there are military officers in every carriage and whilst people shoot at the train, they very rarely hit it.”
We had read several blogs about Georgetown that had very few positive things to say so we weren’t expecting much. A tramps arse isn’t exactly a picture postcard start (I checked - they had the usual selection,“Sunset over Georgetown”, “Penang by Night”, etc. but had oddly overlooked “Tramp Crapping in the Street”), but that aside, maybe our low expectations helped, because we were pleasantly surprised to find Georgetown to be a colourful little city with a nice fusion of Indian, Chinese, Malay and, of course, European
Komtar Tower, Georgetown, Penang
This place is weird. It stands alone in the centre of Georgetown: a giant misfit. At its base is a ramshackle market of cheap t-shirts, zippo lighters and 80's music. If you manage to find the lifts to the top, your entrance fee to the panoramic viewing floor includes a free drink (Ice Lemon Tea or Luminous Pink Tower Slings) and free postcards. It looks like very few people make it that far - the place was empty.
We had one of our best eating experiences of the trip so far at the Krsnar Indian Restaurant in Little India - Chicken Masala Tosai eaten from a banana leaf using fingers. Smearing your hands in curry is strangely satisfying in a Neanderthal kind of way. You can’t help but feel, as you rip chicken meat off the bone with teeth and fingers, that you should be tossing the bones over your shoulder and grunting. The whole experience has had a profound effect on that all important personal top 5 of eating utensils:
1. Chopsticks *
2. Hands **
3. Foldout Plastic Spoons from yoghurt pots
4. Cocktail Sticks (for fruit platters, glace cherries and party nibbles such as cheese cubes, pickled onions, pineapple chunks and, of course, cocktail sausages.)***
5. Knife and Fork *
* - Preferably plastic.
** - Dependant on whose. Ideally mine. However, a tramps hands, for example, would not command such a high ranking. I would hesitate to let a tramp hand feed me curry - even famous squatting tramps from Georgetown postcards.
*** - Fails to register in my “top 5 things to eat soup with” unless the soup is particularly
Porridge in Leith Street, Georgetown, Penang
Nice to know that whichever Leith you live in, porridge is always an option.
chunky or the cocktail stick particularly absorbent. Khota Bharu
The first couple of punches glanced off his face, but the third and fourth split his lip and burst his nose. With his hands in cuffs and an armed police officer grasping either shoulder, there was little he could do but take the beating and quietly bleed. Welcome to Khota Bharu.
This cities tag line is: “Khota Bharu - the Islamic City”. Fortunately the people in the Tourism Activities Department were a little more imaginative than their comrades in Marketing. It doesn’t have a great deal to entice you to stay for more than a night or two and when the first thing you see as you get off the bus is a bloke getting his face rearranged by an angry mob you kind of want to get back on the bus immediately. But aside from the lynch mobs, there is a colourful, smelly, octagonal central market, some nice little eateries and brilliant free shows of traditional Malay culture at the “Cultural Centre” (not to be confused with “Culture Club” which is about as up to date as Malaysian music gets.)
Most days between 3:30 and 5:30 they
No. 20 Leith Street, Georgetown, Penang
According to the Lonely Planet (aka The Book of Good Intentions) this bar is one of the best in Georgetown. It doesn't actually look dissimilar to most of the bars in our Leith, Edinburgh.
have various different performances introduced by a guy who loves his portable mike so much he might well wear it all day, every day. No one - not even the Malaysians - knew what he was talking about or even what language he was speaking. It seemed to me that he might just have been narrating his own life as it happened and pointing to stuff he saw. Whatever it was he was saying, he seemed to enjoy it because every so often he’d laugh at something and the speakers would crackle as he cracked up.
As well as a guy narrating his own life, which I don’t believe is a traditional Malaysian pastime, we saw Silat (the Malaysian Martial Art), which looked like a cross between Thai Chi, wrestling and the New Zealand Haka. Then we got involved in a little Kertok drumming action (ten blokes in matching t-shirts hitting coconut shells… strangely hypnotic).
Vik’s favourite was the Gasing Pangkab (Striking Top); a game involving spinning tops released from coiled ropes. You hold the top in its tightly coiled rope like you might a stone you are about to skim before releasing it quickly and jerking the
Posh Blue House, Georgetown
It's famous for something or other. Lets just pretend that Christopher Columbus died here having chosen the wall colours.
rope backwards. I seemed to specialise in whipping anyone standing behind me and turning it into a vicious projectile weapon by not wrapping the rope tight enough so that the top (which is fairly big and heavy with a sharp spinning point) just flew out of the building sending the kids playing Sepak Bulu Ayam (kicking a large shuttle-cock) in all directions. Pulau Perhentian Besar
The beauty of having a special someone in your life is that you get to reap the benefits of two birthday’s a year rather than one. It’s also a good test of just how strong your relationship really is. If for example you were to say “Happy Birthday!” and hand over a voucher for one person to stay in an expensive beach chalet for four nights, you would hope their reaction would be “but what about you - aren’t you coming?” rather than “fantastic - when do I leave!?”. When I suggested that we up our budget and stay at a more expensive resort on Pulau Perhentian Besar to mark her birthday, Vik didn’t seem to object to my inclusion in the treat; so I took this as good sign. Bubble’s Dive Centre
Is that what you call the towers outside mosques? You can see that I am well versed in the religions of the world.
to get a mention in “The Book of Near Truths” aka “The Hoteliers License to Raise Prices” aka “The Book of Misleading Map Scales” aka “Lonely Planet” - but it is a great little place. We arrived at just the right time - between big groups in a quiet period when there were, at most 15-25 people staying in the chalets at the Centre. This was all part of my masterplan: I’d banked on a Dive Centre being quiet because everyone would be out diving during the day, leaving the beautifully clean, sandy beach relatively free and, as with most of my planning, I was spot on (queue evil laughter, vigorous hand rubbing and twitching eye). On one day we had the beach to ourselves for fairly much the whole day. Other than that we shared it, for the most part, with only four or five others.
So we spent four days relaxing on the beach just reading, swimming, feeding dead flies to ants and making thick cement with sunscreen and sand. And it was in this relaxing climate that we both faced our hideous watery fears.
Vik is scared of everything sea related - waves, seaweed, sand,
boats, Captain Birdseye, fish (especially fish) and even the sea bed. Seriously - if Vik had been fleeing Egypt with Moses, parting the Red Sea would not have impressed her - she’d have demanded he put that water back and get building a bridge that met full British Engineering Tolerance Standards or she wasn’t coming.
So to convince her to actually get in the water was nothing short of miraculous. It took a few days and a few minor “moments” (eg. scrambling backwards out of the water after mistaking her own shadow for a shark) but by the end of our stay she was letting fish swim around her like she was the Little Mermaid.
She even got an admirer in the shape of a colourful, friendly wrasse that swam in graceful circles around her and followed her along the shallows. Admittedly her first thoughts were that it probably had razor teeth that it would sink into her, thus spilling blood and alerting the man-eaters of the deep to the presence of a feeding frenzy - but once a bond of trust had been formed, the scene was more Dr Dolittle than Dr Lechter.
I also faced
Smelly Octagnal Market, Khota Bharu
Vik's flip-flops were like ice-skates on the floor of this place. It's slick with fish oil, vegtable grease and moustache hair. Nice colours though. I like the way some of the vegetable vendors look like they actually live, legless, among their veggies.
my fears and tried some scuba diving. I don’t mind fish, water or even the thought of breathing underwater, but I was less than enthralled with the idea of voluntarily letting my mask fill with water whilst being submerged. I like my eyes and I like being able to use them. I have this pact with them that says I will never open them underwater and in return they’ll let me visually appreciate the world. It’s a good deal, but in recent years they’ve been letting their side of the bargain slip so I figured they were due a dunking. (I have a similar deal with my ears - I get to audibly hear the world so long as I don’t expose them to Scott Mills on Radio 1). As it turns out, when the moment came, I didn’t flap about like a loony as I’d anticipated I would. There was no screaming and I didn’t pee in my wet suit. It turns out that clearing a mask full of water whilst underwater is a much simpler task than I had anticipated. Taman Negara
Walking through the oldest rainforest in the world is more difficult than I’d imagined it
Silat, Khota Bharu
Being a bit of a Marital Artist myself I could appreciate this display. This Marital Artist is expressing to music the way "her indoors" rolls her eyes, stamps her authority and says "no" to football on the telly.
would be. For the most part people say only two things, either “Look at the size of that ant!” or “LEECHES!”.
Leeches are one of those unfortunate animals that were created by an infantile God. He was young - all he could do was roll clay into sausages and stick it to stuff. Hey presto: Leeches. All they do is suck. What sort of a pointless existence is that? Ants have whole movies showing how cute and interesting they are. Even worms and slugs can be cute in children’s books. But you rarely see cute stories about leeches.
The only time I’ve thought of leeches as cute was when a Dutch girl was talking about them and pronounced it “Leecheese”. That’s a good name. You could make a cartoon about Leecheese. It would be like the Smurfs but with more biting and sucking.
Unfortunately the day before we arrived, it had rained heavily over Taman Negara which made the conditions ideal for Papa Leechee, Leechette and all the other Leecheese to don their sucking teeth and hit the trails.
You know what leecheese look like, right? Big black bloated slug like creatures that lethargically slither and
Spinning Tops, Khota Bharu
Everyone cleared the building when it was my turn. The letchy guy behind me who was more interested in "advising" Vik in the ways of the sport just about avoided leaving with rope burns across his cheeks.
slime. If that's your answer - you're in for a good sucking the next time you visit your local rainforest. We met a Canadian duo who were marching through the woods singing "valderie-valderah", looking upwards into the branches, covering their necks because they thought the blighters came from above. How boob-brained do you think they felt when we told them to take off their trainers and roll up their trousers? (That sounds like we jumped out from behind bushes and mugged them for their shoes and socks. It really wasn't like that. We were actually pretty friendly about it.) The male Canadian of the species had a whopper dining at the buffet that was his ankle.
Leecheese are the masked highway men of the rainforest. They are the Dick Turpins of the Jungle. "Stand and Deliver your goopy red stuff". They wait on the paths, small and thin, standing upright, facelessly wriggling about, sensing movement/heat nearby. They flip towards you and before you know it they've robbed you of your precious red stuff. Oh and these bad boys are fast; they flip like a Chinese acrobat on his way to McDonalds.
Not only are they fast, but evolution
Rhythm Nation, Khota Bharu
The Ringo Starr of Malaysia.
has taught them how to deal with socks. They study socks at Leecheese university. They subscribe to "Secrets of the Sock Draw Monthly". Hell, they know your socks better than you do. If your socks are thin then larger leeches can just suck you right through them. Mouthfuls of M&S cotton don't bother Papa Leechee. Others are so small that they can get through the weave of the sock fabric - so thick socks are just as vulnerable. Worst of all, some of them have mastered the art of reversing the work your Granny laboured for months at - they actually unpick the thread of your favourite itchy hiking socks!
There are two schools of thought on leecheese jungle trekking. If you wear boots and socks, you are less likely to get bitten because you have more time to give old leechee a big flick. On the other hand, it makes it very difficult to check if anything has got through your rigorous defences to your soft, milky skin. So unless you take your boots off every so often - which can slow your progress considerably, you arrive back from your trek nervous about what you might find. We
From Here To Eternity, Pulau Perhentian Besar
I'll be your Burt if you'll be my Deborah Kerr...
met a guy who took off his boots to find that he'd lost so much blood he could fit his shrivelled feet in the shoes of a 3 year old.
Alternatively, if you wear only sandals it is easy to see if you have been bitten but you spend a lot more time scolding your feet with lighters and wearing out your fingers with all the flicking. Don't enter a Subuteo competition after a jungle trek in sandals - your fingers won't be up to it and you'll just waste the entrance fee.
My advice is to fight fire with fire. If it bites you, get a tramp to bite it back. Tramps can be hired from the Rainforest Office (all good rainforests have one) and they ask nothing but that you let them hand feed you curry for a while.
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